Category Archives: Strategic Outlook


Military Strategy for a Twitter War

This article was written for our Strategic Communications Week.

It’s been clear for years now that Twitter, and social media writ large, have become battlespaces, where success is measured one retweet at a time. In 2012, ISAF and the Taliban went after each other in a tit-for-tat that sparked headlines like “NATO, Taliban take war to Twitter.”

Or take the example of the current conflict in Iraq, and ISIS’s (or ISIL’s) sophisticated recruiting campaign that The Guardian dubbed “Jihadi Cool.”

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the number of fighters ISIS has recruited via social media, the mass reach of its message is undeniable. The gruesome executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff first appeared on social media sites, including Twitter and YouTube, and became headline news in a matter of hours.

The U.S. has put its weight behind a social media offensive of its own, and it’s important to note that both sides are taking the social media front seriously. ISIS employs advanced tools, like an app called “Dawn” that autotweets pro-ISIS messages from users that download it, and effective techniques, like hashtagging key phrases, to centralize the group’s message. Both aspects are weapons in the war for influence, and the most influential organizations should be taking notes.

Unfriended: The Challenges of Military Social Media Strategy

Military action and information operations have gone hand in hand since the dawn of warfare. Given the ubiquity of social media, taking IO to the social battlespace seems logical and necessary, but several issues make that leap a tricky act.

First is the “P word” – Propaganda, which gets thrown around every time the military forays into the world of mass messaging. Take the example of DARPA’s study of social networks. Since its start in 2011, the dryly named Social Media in Strategic Communications (SMISC) program has been scrutinized by the media as the groundwork for a social media propaganda machine. Even under the most noble pretenses- protecting troops in the field by studying social media cues, the negative connotations of government snooping on social networks, especially in a post-Snowden era, are good enough reasons for some organizations to limit their involvement with social media.

After Facebook’s psychological experiments on users surfaced in July 2014, The Guardian was quick to draw connections between Facebook’s widely disparaged study and DARPA’s SMISC. The smart defense media planner should take these comparisons into context, or otherwise risk losing valuable messaging opportunities.

A second challenge to military social media strategy is one that not all militaries face. If you’re part of the Israeli Defense Force, you have no problems tweeting the following:

Now if you’re tweeting on behalf of the U.S. military, you just can’t do this. Whereas the IDF has defined itself as a do-anything-to-win organization, the U.S. military places a great deal of effort into avoiding the perception as a killing force. Any media strategy must draw from the organization’s values, and for the U.S. military that means centering its tweets around the values of professionalism, leadership, and technical know-how.

Built to Share = Wider Influence

So amidst the perils of doing social media wrong, who’s doing it right? The first lesson comes from none other than the IDF, which crafts media products that are built for sharing. Their graphics and videos are visually engaging, easily understood, and as a result, perfect for passing on to Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and Youtube subscribers.

The idea that social media products should be shareable isn’t exactly a revelation in strategic communications, but too often, organizations fail to execute on the concept. Take PACOM’s Twitter feed (@PACOM), for example, which is so littered with acronyms and military jargon that it takes a professional military education to understand it. More jargon means a disengaged audience, which in turn means fewer shares and limited distribution.

Promoters, Millions of Them

The second lesson comes from ISIS, which relies on a network of outsiders to promote its material. Instead of a single source as the monolithic voice of the organization, multiple authors carry the water for ISIS. This distributed model lends the appearance of authenticity. It also creates a huge problem for the people attempting to control the spread of ISIS’s messages. Blocking offending users as they pop up becomes a challenge, and squashing violent statements on Twitter brings up meaty questions regarding free speech that are yet to be answered.

While militaries are built on authorities, and their communications strategies on official statements and messaging, the truth of the matter is that in social media, the official line is only the beginning of a discussion. Military topics draw crowds of commentators, and more than ever, official posts should be considered no more  than starting references for all of the conversations to follow.

The Serious Business of Social

A February 2014 Reuters study found that 57% of Facebook users and 50% of Twitter users had discovered, shared, or discussed a news story on the sites in the previous week. Internationally, the number of users who get their news (and arguably, their opinions) from social media will continue to increase, as will the opportunities for the most responsive organizations to communicate their messages in that domain.

Gaining the upper hand in social media requires interest and resources, but the alternative is being left out of the discussion. In strategic terms, that’s handing the initiative to your enemy.


The Future of Maritime Security Studies

As part of the Fourth Global International Studies Conference held in Frankfurt (Germany) 6-9 August 2014, a series of panels was organized on Maritime Securityscapes. One of the events was a roundtable on the future of the emerging, informal subdiscipline “Maritime Security Studies”, a rapidly growing field of analysis and research. The participants were asked to provide their comments along four broad questions. The following is one participant’s input to provide food for thought and a better understanding of maritime security as an academic field of interest and study. 

WISC Header

Frankfurt, site of the 4th WISC Global International Studies Conference (source: wikipedia).
Frankfurt, site of the 4th WISC Global International Studies Conference (source: wikipedia).

What are the most pressing and important questions that Maritime Security Studies (MSS) need to answer?

There are four immediate aspects to this, two of which are more inward-looking and two of which are more outward-directed. First, students of maritime security must better utilize the momentum of conditions that are in favor of the thrust of the field (e.g., the littoralization of security, the maritime [and indeed naval] dimensions of climate change, the hypothesis of the increasing utility of naval forces in future conflict scenarios, the recent publication of a cross-sectoral European Maritime Security Strategy, etc.). Second, maritime security scholars must consider, and learn to mitigate, condisations that are seemingly at odds with the thrust of the field (e.g., current land-centric conflicts, continental geopolitical and strategic thinking in policy-making circles, etc.).

Third, there must be a consistent evaluation of the contemporary relevance of maritime security, especially in light of what will come after “anti-piracy”. The naval operations off the Horn of Africa have locked the theme of security at and from the sea in the minds of many policy-makers and analysts to the degree that maritime security is often seen as exclusively about counter-piracy. Naturally, this self-imposed limitation is neither desirable nor practical. Here, it is especially the strategic-minded researchers that have an obligation to make decision-makers aware of the broad security dimensions of the maritime sphere. While they cannot prevent the career of certain terms, they should at least attempt to manage it properly. Fourth, maritime security students must consider how policy-makers can be convinced that investments in maritime security capabilities and capacities at home and aboard is beneficial. This relates to the challenge of doing critical and pragmatic studies: traditional security studies are increasingly dominated and even overpowered by constructivist approaches. 

Piracy areas worldwide.
Piracy areas worldwide.

What issues should be prioritized? What are the top priorities?

As with many fields of study, the top three priorities are funding, funding, and funding. Beyond stating this obvious desire, there appears to be the need to sharpen arguments and understanding of the subject matter “Maritime Security”. For example, in Germany, “maritime security” (“maritime Sicherheit”) has become an all-encompassing term, meaing all kinds of things to all kinds of people. From a naval perspective, “maritime security” usually means just one set of missions among many others (for the U.S. Navy as laid out in the most recent U.S. Navy strategy “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” from 2007; for the German Navy by default, i.e. the operational experience in counter-terrorism and anti-piracy operations since 2002/2008).

Disciples of the emerging field of study should also not forget to look at the field from a commercial and naval perspective. The defense industry, after all, is increasingly looking at littoral security and the emerging maritime safety and security missions, fishery surveillance, counter-piracy, drug interdiction, environmental protection, humanitarian aid, and SAR. Commercial shipping companies are increasingly looking at security in the littoral areas, the ports, and the choke point regions. This offers critical and pragmatic scholars an excellent starting point to link their academic work and insight with influence on actual events and developments.

Scholars should also consider to revive and revitalize the concepts of seapower/sea power in their institutional, function, and geographic dimensions (as British naval strategy dean Geoff Till reminded us once, sea power is something that certain states, or seapowers, have). In addition, it behooves to freshen up on the three uses of the sea for navies (developed by Ken Booth in 1977 and Eric Grove in 1990): diplomatic, constabulary, and military.

Boundaries are a necessary evil.
Boundaries are a necessary evil, but they help to frame our analytical approaches. 

What are the convergences between academic and policy needs in maritime security? Are there shared gaps and how could these be addressed?

The effects of sea power and the policies that make and shape it must ultimately be felt ashore. The same goes for maritime security studies; there are inherent limits to bemoaning “sea blindness” again and again. Policy and maritime security studies both need a better understanding and appreciation of the value and virtue of naval power, and the opportunities of naval forces (presence, flexibility, versatiltiy, modularity, speed, crisis response, etc.). To that end, Maritime Security Studies disciples must learn to embrace navies (even if it means learning some dreaded military lingo and going to acronym hell and back). Navies, in turn, should learn to reach out to the academia and ask hard questions and demand sustainable answers and solutions. Whereas many navies are more about operations than about strategy, and policy-makers often confront a whole host of demands and pressures that keep them from thinking (and acting) strategically, the ultimate goal must be a closer linkage between naval officers, policy-makers, and maritime security students. Those in every field that reach out to the other two players must be identified, and the relationship could even be deepend by way of reserve duty in a navy for civilians and academic fellowships for naval officers).

The secret fantasy of the Maritime Security Studies analyst.
The secret fantasy of the Maritime Security Studies analyst.

How can the new maritime security studies be strengthened? What institutions will we need to undertake research collaboratively?

From a German perspective, there isn’t a single definitive center of gravity for maritime security (especially strategic) intellecutal thought, although there are a number of institutions that could collaboratively engage in maritime security studies (such as the Future Ocean cluster in Kiel, the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg, and the University of the German Armed Forces).  Maritime Security Studies can only be strengthened in a comprehensive manner. Geramns love the comprehensive approach but too often quickly turn a blind eye toward the indispensable military component of that approach. This requires a mapping of institutions and actors who are into the subject. The Institute for Security Policy in Kiel, with its demonstrated experience in third-party research projects and maritime security and naval strategy expertise (one PhD completed in 2009, one to be completed this year, three more due between 2015 and 2018) would be another natural player. Last, but certainly not least, the Center for International Maritime Security itself could play a role.

Analyze this!
Analyze this!

What are plausible next steps for Maritime Security Studies?

There should be a drive for greater institutionalization of the field through dedicated conferences, journals, university chairs, summer schools (one such event was recently organized in Greece), M.A. and PhD courses, etc. There could be a biennial maritime security studies conference – not unlike the McMullen Naval History Symposium in Annapolis, MD – that brings together experts and students from different fields (e.g., naval strategy, recent naval history, etc.). The subject at hand is interesting and exciting enough to explore more dimensions and collaboratively engage in visits on ships, war games and simulations, etc.). In the end, the goal must be to move from maritime case studies such as the dominating anti-piracy operations to the larger trends.

Sebastian Bruns is a Research Fellow at the University of Kiel’s Institute for Political Science/Institute for Security Policy. He holds an M.A. in North American Studies (U of Bonn 2007). The views he presented in Frankfurt and here are his own.

The source of Carthaginian power.

Lessons from History: Carthage & Transport Supremacy

The role of the United States in contingency operations is changing. In all of the large-scale international interventions of the past few years, namely Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic, the United States’ contributions consisted primarily of transport capacity in both the seas and the skies to bring foreign ground forces to the conflict. This trend appears unprecedented for a global power to pursue its interests but, as the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. The ancient maritime power of Carthage utilized the same strategy effectively in the fourth century B.C

For those who are unfamiliar, Carthage was a preeminent maritime power for hundreds of years in the Mediterranean. Pre-saging Alfred Thayer Mahan and 19th century European colonial powers, Carthage embraced an empire not built by massive land holdings but by a disparate collection of trading spheres, ranging from Spain to Sicily, connected by the era’s most powerful navy. There were very few powers that could challenge them on the open seas, making the Western Mediterranean a Carthaginian lake by which it could generate wealth.

Most people know the Carthaginians as the enemies of Rome in the era of Hannibal but that was not always the case. Up until their first dramatic clash in the thirdcentury B.C., the Romans and Carthaginians were allies were allies of convenience. The Carthaginians faced consistent incursions from Numidians in North Africa and colonial wars with the Greeks in Sicily while the Romans had to contend with Greek colonies and restive Samnites to their south. This culminated in the early fourth century B.C. when the Carthaginians used their navy to transport Roman legions to the south to fight their common Greek enemies. Carthage did not have to sacrifice any men to achieve their foreign policy objectives and the Romans, without naval lift, would have spent a much longer time marching their army south through dangerous territory. The Carthaginians were thus able to find manpower to handle operations they could not undertake and the Romans gained rapid mobility. Both sides profited from the arrangement.
The United States is in a similar position in the modern as Carthage was in the ancient world. The United States has unmatched transport capacity in both the maritime and air domains, evidenced in all possible measures: numbers of sea/air transport vehicles, total cargo capacity, and experience in deployment logistics. Many other nations have tactical transports but very few others have either the numbers of strategic-level transports or the financial resources necessary to support long deployments. This situation gives the United States a unique position to influence global deployment of forces; it offers a quasi-veto to undesirable deployments and a force-multiplier for operations that it wants to see conducted.
While the United States has unmatched transport capacity, there are a host of reasons why the United States cannot project its power simultaneously to tackle every global crisis: ongoing operations in Afghanistan, a lack of popular support for committing troops overseas, and tightening budgets restrict the United States. Carthage had similar limitations, due primarily to budgets and the mercenary make-up of their armed forces, which they circumvented in their wars against the Greeks by leveraging Roman manpower. The United States is already doing the same for France in Mali and the United Nations in the Central African Republic.
The story of transport supremacy did not end well for Carthage. In the First Punic War, fought a scant few years after the common war against the Greeks, the Romans raised a substantial navy and challenged Carthage’s dominance on the seas. Defeat in that war, combined with the defeats in the Second and Third Punic wars, would spell the end of Carthage’s empire. While the Carthaginians ushered in their doom by providing transport supremacy to their eventual conquerors, the United States is in no such risk of the same, allowing it to leverage the policy without stoking an existential threat to its existence.
The future looks bright for those with transport supremacy.
Matthew Merighi is a civilian employee with the United States Air Force. His views do not reflect those of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or Air Force.

Sea Control 45 – West Africa Naval Development

seacontrol2This week, we discuss naval development in West Africa with Dirk Steffen of Risk Intelligence and Paul Pryce of the NATO Council of Canada, We cover the challenges of developing state maritime security apparatus, particularly procurement, capabilities & training, as well as the rising challenges of private demand for security vs. public supply that can cause corruption, confusion, as well as innovation.

DOWNLOAD Sea Control 45:
West African Naval Development

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Sea Control 44: Ukraine Crisis (Re-Post)

seacontrolemblemIn light of the MH17 disaster in Eastern Ukraine, we re-air Sea Control 25: The Crimean Crisis (with three CIMSEC writers: Dave Blair, Viribus Unitis, and Robert Rasmussen).  As we discuss this disaster, how it will shape the continuing conflict, and how those involved should proceed – we must keep ourselves honest. With the months of pontification on Ukraine – there are lessons we can learn from how wrong, or right, those past selves were. This podcast covers Russian intentions, Ukranian governance, passive resistance, Maidan, and the EU/NATO.

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 44: Ukraine Crisis (Re-Post)

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Reconsidering the Imminence Requirement in a Post-9/11 World


AbbottabadOne of the most vexing questions in international law is determining under what circumstances a state may lawfully use military force against another state or non-state actor. The U.N. Charter takes a very conservative approach: use of force, according to Article 51, is authorized “if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”1 The international community has long since abandoned the notion that a state must wait until it is actually under attack before it can employ military force. Instead, the concept of “imminence” has been read into Article 51. Daniel Webster famously articulated this rule after the so-called Caroline case: preemptive force can be used only if there is “a necessity of self-defence, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.”2 But even this more deferential rule has proven unworkable in the age of modern warfare. Modern military technology and techniques allow aggressors to launch devastating attacks without significant notice. Additionally, terrorist groups have become increasingly sophisticated in both their tactics and capability to evade detection. To combat these threats, states often gather intelligence that must be acted on in a matter of hours, and special forces are prepared to respond to threats on extremely short notice. For example, President Obama ordered U.S. Navy SEALS to attack a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan that was believed to be housing Al Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden. Although the operation turned out to be a major success, Obama later explained that his advisors were only 55% confident that Bin Laden was in the compound.3 Of course, there was no suggestion that Bin Laden was planning an imminent attack on the United States, or even that he would soon relocate to a new hideout. The time-sensitive nature of the intelligence and the enormous stakes, however, justified the use of military force without any delay to collect more detailed intelligence or seek the aid of the Pakistani government. The Abbottabad raid is an example of how the traditional notion of imminence must be adapted to meet the needs of the Global War on Terror. This post seeks to explain why such a shift is needed and suggests a framework for evaluating the use of military force when a threat is not imminent in the traditional sense.

Changing Nature of Threats

The notion of imminence is an intuitive concept for most people. The requirement is familiar from domestic criminal law, which allows a person to use deadly force in self-defense if he believes such force is “immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself against the use of unlawful force….”4 The imminence requirement is also consistent with the predominant view of international relations, enshrined in Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter, that states are to refrain from using force against another state unless authorized by international law.5 This rule, although a good starting point, is strained by the realities of the current international system.

The imminence requirement developed in a time when military conflict occurred almost exclusively between sovereign nations. It was relatively simple to detect a neighbor amassing conventional forces along your border or positioning naval forces off your shore. It also developed in a time when wars were fought by conventional means: by soldiers on battlefields. The need for imminence applied only in deciding to initiate military force. Once two states were at war, there was generally no requirement of imminence before engaging enemy forces.6 The rise of non-state terrorist groups has altered this dynamic in two important ways. First, terrorist groups have developed tactics that are difficult to anticipate. If states wait until a terrorist attack is imminent, they may be unable to prevent a catastrophe and may have difficulty attributing blame after the fact. Second, because terrorist groups are non-state actors, it is often unclear who is a combatant that may be targeted and who is merely a bystander or sympathizer.

Despite the difficulties of applying the imminence requirement in a post 9/11 world, the Obama administration has continued to acknowledge a need for imminence when using military force against members of Al Qaida and other terrorist groups. In a Department of Justice white paper the Obama administration concluded that deadly force could be used against an American citizen abroad if that citizen “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” and capture is infeasible.7 In a 2011 address, John Brennan, who at the time was President Obama’s Homeland Security Advisor, remarked that imminence would continue to play an important role in constraining America’s use of military force to conform to international law. Importantly, he qualified his support by stating: “a more flexible understanding of ‘imminence’ may be appropriate when dealing with terrorist groups, in part because threats posed by non-state actors do not present themselves in the ways that evidenced imminence in more traditional conflicts.”8 Articulating this new approach to imminence will be an important foreign policy challenge as the U.S. continues to prosecute the war or terror. The U.S. must develop a conception of imminence that both maintains the legitimacy of our military actions under international law and allows us to act preemptively against terrorist attacks.

Additional Factors to Consider

Altering the criteria for the lawful use of military force is a delicate task. Taken to an extreme, a more flexible rule could stipulate that force is appropriate whenever the potential benefits of a military operation outweigh the potential costs.9 This is the decision-making process envisioned by proponents of International Realism. States, as rational actors, would take any action in which the expected benefit exceeded the expected cost. Because, in the realists’ view, the international system is anarchic, there are no extra-national rules that govern when use of force is appropriate. The views of realists, however, have been largely rejected by the United States. If force is used in an unbounded manner, we risk losing legitimacy with the international community. Instead, the new paradigm must incorporate additional factors while still limiting the use of force by imposing legal constraints.

In a 2012 speech Attorney General Eric Holder suggested a new framework for determining which threats are imminent. When considering use of force against a terrorist target, the United States would consider the window of opportunity to act, the possible harm that missing the window would cause to civilians, and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks against the United States.10 This framework is a step in the right direction. The primary shortcoming of the traditional imminence doctrine is that it fails to adequately consider the potential cost of failing to act. The magnitude of a potential threat is an important consideration in deciding when preemption is justified. It is appropriate to preempt a nascent nuclear attack at a much earlier stage than would be appropriate for an attack using conventional weapon. Considering the window of opportunity allows decision makers to weigh the risks of inaction. A related concept is the so-called “zone of immunity.” This term was coined by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and refers to a situation in which failure to take prompt military action will result in the enemy being immune from future attack.11 For example, Barak argued that after a certain point, Iran’s nuclear program would be sufficiently safeguarded that no aerial strike could disable it. When there is potential for a zone of immunity, the relevant question should not be when an attack is imminent, but when immunity is imminent. This flexibility does not mean that force can be used without limits. As Attorney General Holder explained, the use of force is always constrained by four fundamental principles: necessity, distinction, proportionality, and humanity.12 With these limitations intact, it is appropriate to consider the window of opportunity, zone of immunity, and the magnitude of harm that a successful terrorist attack would occasion.

Using Technology to Develop New Standards

Technology has profoundly affected the manner in which states react to threats to their national security. Its effect on the imminence standard is mixed. Some technologies have made it easier to collect and act on intelligence, thus expanding the window of opportunity to preempt terrorist attacks. For example, the use of satellite surveillance and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or “drones”) allows U.S. forces to track, observe, and engage individual terrorists remotely and without putting American service members in harm’s way.13 The ability to gather intelligence remotely and project power rapidly over long distances permits the United States to wait longer before initiating an attack because terrorist operations can be detected at earlier stages and individuals can be engaged on short notice by UAVs. In this sense, new technologies make the imminence standard more demanding. But technology can also compress the timeframe available for decision-making. For example, the decision to freeze financial assets of suspected terrorists must be made quickly and without notice due to the possibility the assets will be electronically transferred.14 Similarly, the advent of cyber-terrorism means terrorist groups can launch attacks on American infrastructure or financial institutions with no notice.15 These developments require the relaxation of the imminence requirement. Perhaps most importantly, technology can aid in decision-making by evaluating the imminence of potential attacks. Sophisticated computer programs can aid in weighing the risks and benefits of using force. In the near future, we may be able to develop systems that can gather intelligence, decide whether an imminent threat exists, and employ deadly force to eliminate the threat.16 Whether this type of technology can be used more widely will depend on whether it can incorporate the legal and ethical rules discussed in this article.


Developing a modern definition of imminence is an important and challenging goal for policy makers. Imminence is a concept that resists a strict legal definition and is better suited for practical determinations. In 2010, Nasser Al-Aulaqi filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to prevent the U.S. government from killing his son, Anwar Al-Aulaqi, who had allegedly been placed on the U.S. government’s “kill list.”17 Al-Aulaqi wanted a court order stating that his son could be killed only if the government could show that he “presents a concrete, specific, and imminent threat….”18 The court held that it could not issue such an order because it was a political question: “the imminence requirement of [the plaintiff’s] legal standard would render any real-time judicial review of targeting decisions infeasible.”19 Despite being difficult for courts to apply, the administration should seek to develop a definition of imminence that will serve as a guide for future military actions against suspected terrorists. In doing so, it can provide the flexibility needed to respond to evolving threats while maintaining the respect of the international community.

George Fleming is a law student at Harvard Law School and former surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.


1. U.N. Charter art. 51 (emphasis added).
2. Daniel Webster, The Papers of Daniel Webster: Diplomatic Papers: Volume 1, 1841-1843, 62 (Kenneth E. Shewmaker & Anita McGurn eds., Dartmouth Publishing Group, 1983).
3. “Obama on bin Laden: The Full “60 Minutes” Interview” (May 2, 2011), available at
4. Model Penal Code § 3.04(1) (1962) (emphasis added).
5. See U.N. Charter art. 2, para. 4 (“All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”). This understanding is at odds with the international realism school of thought. Under that theory, states use military force as a means of advancing their interests in an anarchic system. See generally Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics (1979).
6. For example, during World War II, American fighters targeted and destroyed an aircraft carrying a Japanese official who planned the attack on Pear Harbor. See Harold Hongju Koh, Legal Advisor, U.S. Department of State, Keynote Address at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: The Obama Administration and International Law (Mar. 25, 2010). See also U.S. Army Field Manual, 27-10, The Law of Land Warfare, ¶ 31 (1956) (authorizing attacks on individual officers).
7. Department of Justice White Paper, Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa’ida or an Associated Force (2013).
8. John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Sec. & Counterterrorism, Keynote Address at the HLS-Brookings Program on Law and Security (Sep. 16, 2011).
9. A very simple formula would compare (probability of success × benefits of success) with (probability of failure × cost of failure) + (cost of inaction).
10. Eric Holder, Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice, Speech at Northwestern University School of Law (Mar. 5, 2012).
11. Mark Landler & David Sanger, U.S. and Israel Split on Speed of Iran Threat, N.Y. Times, Feb. 8, 2012.
12. See Holder speech, supra note 10.
13. See generally Jane Mayer, The Predator War, New Yorker, Oct. 26, 2009.
14. See, e.g., Exec. Order No. 13,382, 70 C.F.R. 38567 (2005).
15. See generally Matthew C. Waxman, “Cyber-Attacks and the Use of Force: Back to the Future of Article 2(4), 36 Yale J. Int’l Law. 421 (2011).
16. See, e.g., Kenneth Anderson & Matthew Waxman, “Law and Ethics for Robot Soldier,” Policy Review, 176 (Dec. 1, 2012). An example of this type of technology is the Navy’s AEGIS Combat System
17. Al Aulaqi v. Obama, 727 F. Supp. 2d 1 (2010). Anwar Al-Aulaqi was killed by an American UAV in 2011.
18. Id.
19. Id. at 72 (internal quotation marks omitted).


Maritime Cryptology at the Crossroads

After more than a decade of land war and a desire to rebalance to Asia, America’s Navy finds itself smaller, and in many ways weaker in certain respects. One area that should be of great concern is the current practice and future of maritime cryptology.

Cryptology at sea was proven decisive during World War II, beginning with the battle at Midway and the breaking of the Japanese naval code “JN25.”[i] Equally important was the allied program that cracked the German Enigma machines, “Ultra,” especially those used by the German Navy. Winston Churchill famously remarked to King George VI that, “It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war.”[ii]

(A selection of seven Enigma machines and paraphernalia exhibited at the USA’s National Cryptologic Museum. From left to right, the models are: 1) Commercial Enigma; 2) Enigma T; 3) Enigma G; 4) Unidentified; 5) Luftwaffe (Air Force) Enigma; 6) Heer (Army) Enigma; 7) Kriegsmarine (Naval) Enigma—M4.)[iii]
Throughout the ensuring Cold War until the fall of the Berlin Wall, naval cryptology played a vital role in meeting national and tactical intelligence requirements. America gained deep insight and understanding of Soviet and Warsaw Pact allied naval operations and was able to obtain priceless strategic intelligence through collection missions operated by the U.S. Navy. The end of the Cold War, ensuing strategic drift and drawdown was shattered by the terrorist attack of 9/11, yet even in the midst of a worldwide “Global War on Terror,” the pressure remained to cut the naval force. Today, the Navy is at its smallest point since World War I. For the Navy to conduct its maritime cryptology mission, it must have presence in the littorals, especially in key strategic areas of the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf and the Mediterranean and elsewhere. A smaller Navy with fewer platforms means the Navy is not always where it needs to be and when it needs to be there.

The hope was that through force shaping, automation and remote operations, maritime cryptology could continue to thrive in an ever more complex electromagnetic (EM) environment. Adversarial communications have become far more challenging to detect, exploit and prosecute. The Radio Frequency (RF) environment of today is incredibly complex, with tactical, strategic and data communication links operating in all areas of the spectrum and often at frequencies with a very low probability to intercept. Modern encryption techniques have evolved from mechanical electronics to the use of quantum mechanics.[iv]


The effects of force shaping, automation and remote operations are beginning to take their toll on the tradecraft of maritime cryptology. Today’s junior Sailors and officers have had their training time cut in order to meet growing operational demands on a shrinking Navy. To be successful in the art of cryptology – and it is a practiced art – one must have a deep understanding of the fundamentals of radio signal transmission as well as more than a passing familiarity with the collection equipment. A junior cryptologic technician and junior officer should be able to draw a basic transmitter-receiver diagram and trace the origin of a signal from its original state, such as voice or data, through the transmitter, across a medium and into the collection gear and the operator’s ears. Foundational knowledge required that the basic operator have a working knowledge of the equipment and be able to perform diagnostic and troubleshooting tasks in the event of a malfunction. Finally, operators and junior officers must understand the process of signal intelligence reporting to the tactical unit at sea (indications and warning intelligence) as well as to the national signal intelligence system.


At the same time, emerging cyberspace communication networks place entirely new pressures on maritime cryptology. Modern communication, command, control and information sharing are a “network of networks,” an “Internet of things” that require new skill sets and new acquisition and exploitation technologies. Yet the complexity of data systems and volume of data being passed is growing exponentially, outpacing our acquisition and procurement capability. The Navy has tried to mitigate this by relying on commercial off-the-shelf technology (COTS) but this entails its own set of problems. COTS technology must be compatible with legacy systems – some more than twenty years old and built on architecture and code from the late 1980s and early 1990s – and it relies on bandwidth levels that are not always available and reliable. We often find out the hard way that equipment which works well in the sterile lab environment is not up to the task of performing reliably at sea under arduous conditions.

Maritime cryptology is at a cross roads. We must return to the fundamentals of signal intelligence at the same time we are trying to realize the potential of cyberspace operations at sea. This will require a renewed commitment to recruitment and training, and for many middle grade and senior enlisted cryptologic technicians and officers, it means new formal training. Right now, senior enlisted and officers are being asked to take leadership roles in an emerging cyberspace operations field for which they are receiving inadequate or no formal training. We must reconsider recruitment of new junior Sailors and officers who have the background skills, education and knowledge and provide them a career path that emphasizes cryptologic expertise across the spectrum, from “traditional” signals intelligence to modern wireless exploitation. This career path must be grounded in recognizing that maritime cryptology is more art than science, and to become proficient and experienced, one must practice.

The author would like to thank CDR Kevin Ernest who kindly provided his thoughts on the challenges of modern maritime cryptology.

LT Robert “Jake” Bebber is an information warfare officer assigned to the staff of U.S. Cyber Command. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy or U.S. Cyber Command. He welcomes your comments at